What Painting Taught Me About Writing

 [Above: The Times Building in Downtown Huntsville.]

Is it too early in my return to blogging to write a self-reflexive post?  If a self-described show about nothing can become a hit, I suppose I should not be so self-conscious, which brings me to my point. . .

My friend Liz from Waltz & Willow wrote a post this June about choosing an art form and the way we often drift in and out of our interests over the years.  Reading it again last week reminded me that writing used to be my art form of choice.  Of course, I am fairly certain that painting has superceded it for good, but I do still enjoy wordsmithing, and when I stumble across old essays and poems from the days when I pursued belles lettres like an ardent yet furiously unrequited lover, I am shocked to find that I was not only a fairly competent writer, but possibly an exceptional one.  Not that I was happy with my work or happy when working at the time.  Ever in search of le mot juste and prone to severe self-criticism, there came a day when I would simply stare at the page, write the first word, then proceed to cross it out, terrified at how vulnerable words made me to the opinions of others, terrified at how the wrong message might sway others, terrified at the seeming impossibility of ever truly communicating with others, in short, unable to speak.  No matter how worthy those concerns were, I was not looking at them as interesting questions, but rather allowing them to become insurmountable obstructions.  I did not practice my craft or learn about it-- I wrestled with it using only brute force (something my mother warned me about, but I did not know how to listen).  Naturally, it fought back and paralyzed me.

[Above: The Red Chair-- a good place for armchair philosophers.]

My approach to painting was vastly different. . . I had always drawn; I even doodled in my planners all throughout my high school years, prompting my algebra teacher to ask why I was drawing in class and whether I had finished my homework already (I had-- I was rather fond of math).  Doodling helped me concentrate, and expressing myself in pictures seemed to be safer than expressing myself in words (a fallacy, really, but it felt that way at the time). . . I was cloaked in a sort of protective symbolism, I thought, that words, which seemed to require more concrete meanings, could not offer.  When I took up a brush for the first time, I did so with no expectations whatsoever.  I was not trying to create the next great masterpiece or shake the world or be edgy; I simply wanted to make a painting.

In making subsequent paintings, I would set a small goal-- to use a certain color, create a certain effect, or consider how style could influence meaning in some particular way-- and if I accomplished that goal, I considered the painting complete.  If the painting did not please me, I simply made another.  I would look at the "failed" piece as an opportunity to learn and make a better piece next time.  I enjoyed the act of painting and viewed visual imagery as a language that allowed me enough flexibility to say many things all at once.  I never worried about whether there might be a problem with my message while working. . . I would look at the painting after finishing it, and if the message seemed problematic, I would simply paint over it or not share it.  Funny enough, very few of my pieces genuinely displeased me then, and I am not prone to over-analyzing my work now.  I do not even ask myself whether I am a good painter. . . I simply make paintings, look at paintings, study different styles of art, read about art history and theory, and do my best to learn everything I can about what constitutes a successful painting.  If I like the painting enough, which I usually do, I share it with others in the hope that it might bring them a bit of whatever good it brought me.

 [Above: Rainy Day, one of my very early abstract paintings.]

In reviving this blog again after a long hiatus, it occurred to me that I need not approach writing any differently than I approach my paintings.  The exact same habits and principles apply.  Given my good intentions, what is the point of being self-conscious?  Instead of becoming pessimistic, I can write a dozen new pieces to see which ones work or I can come back to a post a week after scribbling it down and edit whatever I need to edit.  Worrying about sounding intelligent every time I attempt to write is not going to make my work more valuable-- being sincere and thinking things through is.  If I wind up writing something dreadful, I can simply choose not to share it. . . but increasingly, I do not think my writing is dreadful.  There are things to try, learn, and hone, but I have not somehow disrupted the entire fabric of the universe if I have written a few dozen or even hundred paragraphs that are not worthy of publication.  Most importantly, I can set small goals for each piece I write and break topics down into manageable chunks. . . that is not an indicator of failure and incompetence; it is nothing more than a sensible way to accomplish any task.

According to Kant, Enlightenment is the casting off of one's self-imposed immaturity ("Aufklärung ist der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbst verschuldeten Unmündigkeit"), but the German word Unmündigkeit, with its roots in the word for "mouth", seems to describe the concept of immaturity not in terms of being unripe or young, but in terms of being incapable of speaking for oneself.  I have always appreciated that quote, but I did not realize how much it applied to my years of writer's block.  At any rate, I am finding new joy in casting off my self-imposed "mouthlessness", and I look forward to discovering the many paths where it might lead. . .

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